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On Black Space & Black Lives
PennDesign student Kat Engleman shares North Philly Peace Park experience
Last week at my job a white man in a suit walked into our building asking for someone whose name we did not know but worked for our landlord. While my coworker and I looked perplexed, someone appeared outside our building waving at the man to come outside. He proceeded to show him our building in what became clear was the potential sale of our space to someone unrelated to our work and this community. This felt particularly devastating because I walk past new apartment buildings and vacant lots in this neighborhood every day. I feel the sharp dividing lines between the young white professionals who walk east of the El and the sounds of Spanish and working class people to the west and know ultimately what they mean. In the moment this man began looking at our building it was clear that our place on that line was dangerously precarious in a system where profit is valued over lives, that our place could be washed away in an instant and we were powerless to stop it.
As I left work that day I crossed the intersection and looked westward. From there, I could see housing towers that belonged to Temple University and beyond that I knew that somewhere nestled on Jefferson St. and 22nd lay the North Philly Peace Park. The small parcel of land sits in a neighborhood that looks much like that of the community Freddie Gray came from (Sandtown-Winchester) and the dystopian reality of Detroit’s streets. Here, small wooden signs dot each block denoting the eminent domain used by The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) for a massive redevelopment plan (approximately 1300 properties). Since 2011, the Peace Park has been fighting against food insecurity and providing safe public space within the neighborhood by seizing land that has sat vacant for years. By 2015 the PHA began enacting their plan for redevelopment and a yearlong showdown followed, resulting in the Park losing its space, earthship and plants because PHA did not want to “set the precedent” of residents claiming land left desolate for years. In an attempt to assuage bad publicity, the Peace Park was relocated to 2200 W Jefferson St., directly across from the now imploded Blumberg Towers, where they were allotted a 20’x40’ rectangle of land (or two small parcels) upon which to plant.
At the DiverseDesign conference this past April, Executive Director of the Park, Tommy Joshua stated, “to have so much vacant land and have people going hungry, to have so much vacant land and people are homeless is a human rights violation.” Sitting in the Park a few weeks after the implosion and the day after the conference, you could feel the hope and energy circulating through the air as we discussed plans for designing their new space. Since that moment in April, a small team of designers (Libby Bland MArch/MCP ‘18, Kat Engleman MLA/MArch ‘18 and Maya Thomas HSVP ‘16) began meeting regularly in order to envision the new space culminating in the first phase of the build on June 15th where over 100 volunteers from the community, UPenn and Habitat for Humanity cleaned lots, constructed planting beds, seating, a trellis, shed, and “imagination land” the playground space made of tires inspired by the idea of one of Tommy’s students. The building of the park, however, is less about a feel good moment for a large institution to say that they did something for the community, and more about the magnitude of what this project means in the context of the current world we, specifically Black people, live within.
In the weeks after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling we understand that to exist as a Black person in our PUBLIC and even our private (learn about Aiyana Stanley-Jones) spaces are dangerous activities. In the spaces we inhabit, we are not free. In the spaces we navigate our lives are not in our control. This has been our legacy in the United States where we were enslaved to work the land in order to maintain the livelihoods of this nation, where our ability to have full dignified lives after slavery was “abolished” has yet to be achieved in 2016. We primarily live in communities that have been divested and underfunded, left to rot from lack of quality schools, job opportunities and ultimately sending our folks into the new cycle of enslavement: the prison industrial complex. It is not just enough to recognize that the system of policing that murdered Philando and Alton (and countless others) is unjust, but to see that it is implicitly tied to the ways our communities have manifested in physical environments.
When Tommy got tired of walking through his community left abandoned by the city, he began dreaming of an alternative world that allowed for them to live within their dignity: The Peace Park. Instead of feeling powerless, instead of “following the rules,” the Peace Park refused to let anyone dictate their lives anymore. This act of self-determination and resistance against forces much larger than them stands in conjunction with the work of Movement for Black Lives, the Black Power Movement and Civil Rights Movement before it, demanding our collective liberation. The ability to determine what happens on land within their community speaks directly to the visions of Black & Brown people suffering from systems of oppression worldwide. Instead of being a passive character in the story of Sharswood and ultimately their lives, the North Philly Peace Park made the decision to be protagonists and do the impossible: imagine spaces once deemed impossible for them.
With that said this summer with the Peace Park has allowed us to deepen our commitments to community and life in a world that makes it hard to see any value in ours. As three Black Women designers (the smallest minority group in the field at .2%), we honor the Park’s resistance. We honor the history and legacy of this project within the scope of other movements. We honor the resilience of our communities and their ability to survive despite every attempt to wipe us out. We honor the culture of our people and seek to create a space that actively reflects that. We honor the hope and vision that a project like this brings out. We honor the members of the community who have come out since the finishing of Phase 1, acknowledging the donations, the compliments, the questions on whether PHA will take the space away (the idea that nothing nice and for the people in this community can stay permeates the air), the interest and pride in the park as a place they can use. Ultimately we honor the fact that words mean nothing without action and the actions of this project as a Black space speak loudly: Black Lives Matter.
*This project will continue throughout the summer and early fall culminating in a community celebration after the building of an educational pavilion on site. For more information contact Libby at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kat at email@example.com